Amid Roadless Rule rollback concerns, Alaska Native leaders from throughout Southeast met with the man who oversees the Forest Service in Juneau.
Following a Saturday meeting with U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Jim Hubbard, tribal leaders said they hope their concerns about a plan to exempt 9.2 million acres of the Tongass National forest from a rule that prevents development will be heard.
But they’re preparing for the possibility the Forest Service will opt to pursue its preferred plan.
“One of the things we shared today was our frustration,” said Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson, Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska President in a Saturday afternoon interview. “We signed on as cooperative agencies not as tribes, and we felt they just kind of steamrolled us over. The term bait and switch was used today. It really diminished our trust with them.”
Organized Village of Saxman President Lee Wallace and Organized Village of Kake President Joel Jackson joined Peterson to talk to the Empire.
Wallace said the meeting had been in the works for a long time and partially stemmed from February letters sent to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.
Last week, Tlingit & Haida, Angoon Community Association, Hoonah Indian Association, Organized Village of Kasaan, Hydaburg Cooperative Association and the Organized Village of Kake issued a joint statement condemning the Forest Service’s plan.
Saturday’s meeting, which was not open to the public, was attended by representatives from Kake, Hoonah, Tlingit & Haida, Kasaan, Hydaburg, Ketchikan Indian Community, Organized Village of Saxman and the Forest Service, according to an agenda from the meeting.
Wallace said the letters eventually led to phone calls with Hubbard, which later led to the possibility of a meeting in Alaska.
“When I heard that, I made an immediate call to Hubbard’s office, and I requested a face-to-face tribal consultation,” Wallace said. “I wanted to involve more tribes, so I suggested they make arrangements they make this tribal consultation happen in either Juneau or Ketchikan being hub communities.”
Peterson, Wallace and Jackson said while there is some divide among the tribes about what the best version of the Roadless Rule would be, there is a strong consensus against totally exempting Tongass National Forest.
“This isn’t just the tribes don’t want action” Peterson said. “The economics of our region are just different now. The timber industry, love it or hate it, is in a position where it’s on its last leg.”
Jackson said if logging did come to Kake, it would not result in locals being employed.
“It’s not going to benefit us,” he said. “We don’t have any loggers anymore.”
There is also a strong sentiment that the rulemaking process was subverted by a reported meeting between Gov. Mike Dunleavy and President Donald Trump.
“This was all out of that discussion with Governor Dunleavy and President Trump, and that’s what abbreviated the process,” Peterson said.
He, Jackson and Wallace said there is going to be an effort to encourage people to attend public meetings and comment on the Forest Service’s plan by the Dec. 17 public comment deadline. There will also be a series of subsistence hearings held in rural communities, in which locals will give testimony.
Jackson, Peterson and Wallace said they’re hopeful public response and input from tribes will be considered. However, litigation is likely if the Forest Service moves forward with the plan.
“Our recourse is going to be the same as the last times we sued them,” Jackson said. “We’re already gearing up to do that.”
Kake previously successfully sued the USDA and alleged adoption of a Tongass exemption violated the Administrative Procedure Act.
Peterson said he anticipated other tribes would also want to take the matter to court, and there would be additional fallout.
“The other outcome is some of us are going to work extra damn hard come election time,” Peterson said.
Have something to say?
The public can submit comments to the Forest Service by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.; mail at USDA Forest Service, Attn: Alaska Roadless Rule, P.O. Box 21628, Juneau, Alaska, 99802; fax at 907-586-7852; and in-person at 709 W. Ninth St., Room 535B, Juneau.
• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.